The Story Behind Your Hand PipesKen Kulow
Hand-blown glass has some major advantages when it comes to artistry and customization, but it also has some challenges as well. Be it our wood grain glass pipe or the elegant Gandalf pipe, all our hand pipes are hand-blown. Hand blown pipes always have an edge over mass manufactured pipes, which we have also included in this blog. Here’s the story behind your hand pipes that you need to know.
When did glass blowing start?
From 2,000 Years Ago to the Modern Era
Glass-blowing dates back to the 1st century B.C.E., though it started in 3000 BCE for ornamental purposes, having nothing to do with pipes. Today, it’s surely done with modern tools and techniques — but the core of the art hasn’t changed. While glass-blowing may sound simple (and it’s often quite a fast process), it requires hardcore training and knowledge of the developing technique. If you want to know, we have already published a blog on the history of glass pipes.
The process of ‘hard’ glass blowing
The process begins with pre-heating glass in a kiln to 1100 degrees, just under borosilicate deformation temperature at which it becomes malleable but not liquid. A blow-pipe is inserted into the furnace into a round ball of glass, which is the material to be blown.
Once collected, glass is rolled on a graphite slab, which is called the “marver.” The blower will carefully shape the glass, heating it back up in the kiln as needed. If the glass is not already colored it can be colored in this stage by dipping it into colored fragments of glass ‘frit’ to give the desired design. The crushed glass instantly sticks to the main piece because its hot.
Finally, once the glass has been properly colored and rolled, the glassblower continues to work on it at the correct temperature. The glass blower gently blows air into a hose (which is long enough to prevent dangerous backflow), while rolling the glass and giving it the right shape and size. If the need be, this is when the artisan adds flourishes or other details. They could add more glass onto it for a different type of design.
Finally, the glass is removed from the point and immediately returned to the hot kiln for Annealing. This can be the most delicate time, as it can shatter if it’s cooled either too fast or too unevenly. Once a good annealing temperature has been reached uniformly throughout the creation; ‘the soak’, an annealing regimen begins where the glass is slowly lowered in temperature and held at specific important temperature plateaus (1050 & 960 F) for specific amounts of time. This allows the glass matrix to reform after it is stressed and damaged during the process of blowing and shaping. Unfortunately, without a polariscope, it can be almost impossible to ‘see’ the effects of a good annealing program, which is why many low labor importers and some domestic companies skip this most important step. They will refer to ‘flame annealing’ and use of ‘vermiculite’ if you corner them and make them talk about the high cost of the kilns and the expensive electricity that keeps them hot all day long. Annealing is also bad for business in many of the large conglomerate brands and imports. I have personally been party to conversations at trade shows about how ‘breakage is good for business’. Personally, I like the emails I get about how long our products last.
Artisan’s Role in Glass Pipe Making Process?
Every artisan eventually develops their own techniques for rolling and shaping, which is part of what makes each piece unique and individual. Often, there are hallmarks of who has created each piece. Unfortunately, this is where signature styles that have great eye appeal are often copied without any reference to the artisan responsible for the creativity. Branding, whether by individual name or company, helps the consumer identify these artisanal innovations and creativity.
Understandably, artisan glass is a temperamental medium. At every stage, the glassblower has to remain conscientious about the shape, size, and form of the glass — gently guiding it into its final shape. This is not true of machine made/blow molded/stamped glass like many Grav Lab models from China (Read here why we say so). That is not to say that a significant investment has not been made. Glass blowing apparatus are very expensive to be sure! The question is where the investment is made: in training and equipping a human being or the most recent CNC lathe from Arnold Group.
The Advantages of Hand-Blown Glass Pipes
Because glass doesn’t easily damage, stain, or chip, it’s one of the best choices for hand pipes. They provide smoother and pure experiences as they don’t absorb tastes and odours over time. Hand-blown glass pipes are easy to keep clean and are dense and difficult to break. When blown properly, these glass items will last many years.
One of my favorite things during a business day is to receive an email from a customer who, after 20+ years of use, finally needs to replace or update the design. ‘Hey Man, do you still make this pipe? I bought it 20 years ago in Dallas and my ‘friend’ ganked it…I need to buy a new one!’
Every hand-blown glass pipe is unique and something that is going to be a topic of discussion. Because of the nature of glass, which is a viscous fluid during development, every piece is different. Yes, we strive for consistency and adhere to a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) mentality, but there are always slight variations, especially when a model is handed off to a different blower as people move up in talent and skills in front of the torch. And since you’re reading a guy’s blog that spent his early life making light bulbs and cars in factories full of machines, that’s something special in the days of mass manufacturing.
Handmade Glass pipes are made one by one, rather than being manufactured en masse, and that also makes them special. The pipes have to be designed not only to look fantastic but also to have a full and pleasant draw. Form and Function are equally important.
There is so much thought and artistry put into hand blown glass, it’s an excellent unique gift for someone, or a great purchase for someone who wants to treat themselves to the world of functional art and artisan hand pipes.
The Challenges of Hand-Blown Glass
Because it is a unique process every time, hand-blown glass pipe requires an expert artisan to create. The artist only gets one chance to form the glass. Often, if it’s blown improperly, the artist will need to start over, as there are less chances that the piece can be recovered. Losing a piece is a huge waste of time and materials, which is why so few artists accept custom work requests.
Glass is also dangerous to work with. Molten glass is very hot and leaves a nasty burn. Glass is dangerous even when it’s not hot. Glass cuts skin as well or better than any knife, often times cutting without the artist even feeling it until later. Blowing glass is as dangerous as many people think. Safety protocols in place in the United States via OSHA help ensure the health and safety of artists, but only extend to the borders of the USA. International Studios, especially in developing low labor cost markets often don’t invest in safety gear or processes.
An artist needs to be very attentive to get consistent results. Every piece of glass pipe is unique, which means it has to be blown differently as well. The technique used on one model to achieve a desired effect, often times does not work on a different model. I often use a guitar to describe this point. If you have ever played any instrument, you know that a specific note can often be found on different strings or different areas of the instrument. Depending on where you are playing on the fingerboard, you may choose your ‘D’ on one of three strings depending on the proximity to where your hand is at. Same idea in glass, and the masters can coax similar effects out of the glass using vastly different techniques depending on where and how they are working. The glass will react differently because of the many variables in play during creation, which means the artisan needs to react and improvise continuously.
The longer the creation cycle and the more extravagant the pipe is, the more are the chances that it could break, fracture, or otherwise not form properly. Even a simpler looking pipe like the #441 Hullabaloo can be deceptively complex. But many people choose glass hand pipes not only because of their elegant appearance and uniqueness but also because they are so much easier to care for. If you choose the right maker, and with the right care and cleaning tips, you can make your glass pipe last a very long time looking the same as now.
To view amazing and unique glass pipes, visit our online store.